Turkey Is Helping, Not Deporting, Syrian Refugees

The Turkish government provides millions of Syrians with health care and education. A multilateral political solution is needed and demonizing Ankara won’t help.

A Syrian woman shows her bank card, part of the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education program funded by the European Union and managed by UNICEF, the Red Cross, and Turkish authorities, in Adana, Turkey, on March 18.
A Syrian woman shows her bank card, part of the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education program funded by the European Union and managed by UNICEF, the Red Cross, and Turkish authorities, in Adana, Turkey, on March 18. OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

A recent Foreign Policy article by Kareem Chehayeb and Sarah Hunaidi claims that Turkey is attempting to “sidestep international obligations to protect” Syrian refugees and is deporting Syrians. It alleges that Turkey deported Hisham Moustafa Steif al-Mohammed, a Syrian refugee before he was “killed by a Turkish sniper” as he attempted to cross the Turkish-Syrian border illegally. 

This narrative, however compelling, is misleading.

The article misrepresents Turkey’s policy toward Syrian refugees as a “deportation policy” and presents as fact uncorroborated claims about a specific individual.

The Turkish government categorically rejects the allegation that Syrian refugees face deportation in Turkey. Having adopted an open-door policy toward displaced Syrians back in 2011, the country has admitted approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees—compared with 1.4 million in Jordan and just 18,000 in the United States. Once registered with the authorities, those individuals are entitled to public services, including free health care and education. To facilitate the delivery of such services, Turkey has required all refugees to reside in the province where they initially registered.

Because some Syrians relocated within the country without notifying the authorities, the Turkish government launched an initiative in early 2017 to update records and achieve a more balanced distribution of asylum-seekers across the country. As part of this effort, the governor of Istanbul, home to some 1 million Syrians, half of whom are registered in other provinces, announced an Aug. 20 deadline for relevant individuals to return to where they registered. This deadline has since been extended to Oct. 30. 

This measure is intended to ensure the uninterrupted delivery of public services to the refugee community and enforce the long-existing rules that have enabled Turkey’s extraordinary response to the Syrian civil war.

The idea that Turkey, which has granted citizenship to some 102,000 Syrians and delivered $40 billion worth of goods and services to the Syrian civil war’s victims, would deport Syrian refugees is preposterous. Doing so would run counter to international agreements and national laws. Quite the contrary, Turkey remains committed to its open-door policy. Consequently, no fewer than 70,000 new refugees have been admitted in 2019 alone.

Those facts and numbers also refute Chehayeb and Hunaidi’s claim regarding Hisham Moustafa Steif al-Mohammed. Mohammed was detained in May in connection with a terrorism investigation—not, as the authors claim, because he lacked documentation—according to official records. He was subsequently transferred to a temporary detention facility, where such individuals may be held for up to a year under international law. Several weeks later, Mohammed requested that the Turkish authorities facilitate his return to Syria. In such cases, all applicants are required to fill out a voluntary repatriation form, which is available in Turkish and Arabic, before crossing the border. The form is co-signed by officials from the Turkish government and U.N. representatives, among others. Turkey respects, and will continue to uphold, the principle of non-refoulement.

We cannot independently confirm the claim that Mohammed was killed by a Turkish sniper. Turkey has no records of the incident that Chehayeb and Hunaidi allege to have occurred at the Turkish-Syrian border, and such behavior does not reflect Turkey’s border security policy.

Finally, the article does not mention that Hani Hilal, one of the Syrians quoted, was caught during an attempt to leave Turkish territory illegally on July 4 and, on being transferred to a holding facility in Turkey, filed for voluntary repatriation six days later, according to official records. 

Recent allegations against Turkey, a country with limited means but a firm commitment to helping Syrian refugees, reveal the international community’s failure to focus on the real issues. Instead of assigning blame to those who are not at fault, governments and human rights organizations should be promoting international cooperation to find a political solution and address the root causes of irregular migration.

Fahrettin Altun is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director. Twitter: @fahrettinaltun

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